East of England Co-Op

Prioritising employee wellbeing has become a much greater intention and discussion for our MAD-HR clients.

In the second of our series exploring how specific businesses and organisations seek to address wellbeing matters, we’ve been chatting to Doug Field OBE, CEO of East of England Co-op.

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Name: Doug Field OBE, CEO

Business: East of England Co-op

Core Business Function: East of England Co-op is the largest independent retailer operating in the Eastern region. It is perhaps best known for its many food stores, but also has a number of specialist services, including those in funerals, security, travel, and even filling stations.

Location: Stores and services across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

Total Staff: Around 3,800


To what extent does East of England Co-op recognise employee wellbeing as a significant priority within the business?

It’s up at the top of the list of for us. It’s something we’re hugely conscious of, and it’s why we’ve put such energy and effort into looking at how we can develop the right partnerships and pathways to support all of our colleagues – no matter what role they play in the organisation.

What partnerships and pathways have developed from that ethos in recent times, and are they proving effective?

The main undertaking has been the creation of a unique partnership with Suffolk MIND.

This collaboration resulted from a great deal of conversation between both parties, looking at how we could support our colleagues – particularly post-covid – and how we could showcase a new dynamic approach to the wellbeing of employees in the world of retail.

Tell us more about when this began and what it involved:

Commencing in 2020, the partnership involved embedding a MIND employee into the East of England Co-op team for two years.

That person became our lead for supporting colleague wellbeing through training, regularly listening to our colleagues to understand how they are and what they are experiencing, as well as equipping us with a comprehensive strategy around wellbeing within the business going forward.

Were there particular colleagues who, at the time of commencing the initiative, you felt were experiencing a greater degree of need for wellbeing support?

It’s certainly true to say that in the face of Covid, we had become conscious of how impacted many of our colleagues had been.

Some had experienced more isolation, some had suffered loss, and others – just as now with the fears surrounding the cost of living crisis – had become worried about financial stability. Poor financial wellbeing has always had a disproportionate effect on mental health, and we recognised that fully.

We should also mention those who work in some of our more specialist services. For example, our Funeral Service teams had been through some particularly emotional periods and faced a number of challenging situations during the pandemic. The appropriate support for them was clearly needed.

You talked about the delivery of training as part of the wellbeing strategy. Who received the training? Was it necessary for every member of your 3000+ staff to undertake it?

No, that wasn’t the approach.

While in many ways it might seem a great idea to provide the wellbeing training to each and every employee, we found the way to approach it was to focus on 200 or so line managers, who would then be equipped to support their teams.

You have to remember that the nature of retail and the turnaround of staffing at different times in the year, would make it incredibly difficult to put a training demand on each and every person.

This way, we could cascade a solid level of understanding, by having our managers trained in a comprehension of emotional needs and how these are met.

That said, and recognising the particular challenges they face, bespoke training was delivered to all colleagues working within our Funeral and Security businesses.

What response did you get to the training, from your managers?

We made a point of capturing that feedback, to ensure we were on the right track with our approach to wellbeing.

97% of managers reported feeling confident about using what they had learnt in the workplace, reporting an improved knowledge and understanding of how to identify and support poor mental health, for example. Furthermore, it was great to hear that our managers also felt the learning benefitted them personally, so much as being able to better take care of themselves and to support friends and family.

You described the ‘waterfall effect’ as being an important part of creating cultural change. Why is that?

We have a disparate workforce, working within different business areas and across different locations. That is why we focussed on upskilling our line managers in the first instance, recognising they are key to cascading information and leading real change at a local level for all colleagues’ benefit.

We’ve still complemented this with all colleague communications to promote awareness and understanding and, in the next phase, we will be launching further tools and resources for all colleagues to access. However, we recognised that it was important for our line managers to be in a place where they are more confident in supporting and talking about colleague mental health and wellbeing before these could be successfully implemented (avoiding the risk that these initiatives otherwise become ‘stand-alone’ activities which are not utilised or engaged with).

What else has been happening around wellbeing since this partnership was introduced? Is it designed to benefit Co-op ‘members’ (customers), as well as employees?

It’s being considered across everything we do now – whether that’s events, the way we talk, the initiatives we introduce in store, or how we recruit and retain.

From a customer perspective, some will have taken advantage of accessing our Your Co-op Live series. Specifically, this featured one episode entirely focusing on mental health and looking at issues like sleep, and at support within the community.

Clearly, you feel positive about your experience of the partnership. When is it due to end, and what happens next?

Although the MIND partnership which originated in 2020 is due to finish in the Spring of 2023, there’s no doubt that wellbeing will remain a fundamental priority and that our emphasis on training and support will continue to run through our business activity and ethos going forward.

What would you say to any business leader thinking about introducing a wellbeing strategy, or wanting to develop a partnership the way you did?

I’d certainly say the benefits are very apparent, and I would encourage all business owners and leaders to look at what they can practically implement.

Evaluation and constant appraisal of your intention is key. You must be able to identify what is working for your team, and what might need changing.

With some challenging times ahead of us in terms of the cost of living crisis, it’s obvious that more people might potentially see their wellbeing suffer, so a greater business-wide awareness has to be to the benefit of everyone.

For more information go to the East of England Co-op website.